In­box out­foxed

When will emails go the way of faxes, etc?

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - Robin Pag­na­menta

‘You’ve got mail.”

It was the ti­tle of a 1998 Hol­ly­wood ro­man­tic com­edy – and th­ese days ranks among what must be the most dreaded phrases in the English lan­guage.

Since 1971 when Ray­mond Tom­lin­son, an Amer­i­can com­puter pro­gram­mer, pressed send on the first ever email, the by now ubiq­ui­tous form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion has mor­phed into a mon­ster.

Each day, over 269bn emails are pumped out across the globe – most of them by ma­chines.

Al­ready they de­vour em­ploy­ees’ time and pro­duc­tiv­ity but the fig­ure is ex­pected to rise to 333bn by 2022.

For those that can even re­mem­ber them, the few short years dur­ing the Nineties when email was con­sid­ered thrilling and mod­ern have re­ceded into the dis­tant past.

In­stead, grow­ing em­ployee frus­tra­tion over spam, the drain­ing process of triag­ing im­por­tant mes­sages from the un­fil­tered mass, and the steady rise of al­ter­na­tive forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – from mes­sag­ing apps like What­sApp to new soft­ware like Slack and Asana, have prompted many com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als to ask an in­evitable ques­tion: how long will it be be­fore the email can be con­signed to his­tory, like the telegram, the fax and the pager be­fore it?

It’s still a few years off but such pre­dic­tions, which have been made for a while, now look plau­si­ble.

It’s not just mil­len­ni­als who are shun­ning email in favour of in­stant mes­sag­ing ser­vices but a grow­ing ros­ter of in­flu­en­tial peo­ple – from Christopher Nolan, the film-maker be­hind to tequila ty­coon John Paul De­jo­ria who are fol­low­ing suit.

“Pay at­ten­tion to the vi­tal few, ig­nore the triv­ial many,” De­jo­ria has said. Ar­guably more im­por­tant is the fact that some of the world’s big­gest com­pa­nies such as IBM and Voda­fone are ac­tively seek­ing to cur­tail their in­ter­nal use of email, amid a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that it is a dis­trac­tion and an in­ef­fi­cient way to get work done.

The av­er­age UK worker now re­ceives 121 emails per day – of which 48pc are spam and only a small mi­nor­ity are mes­sages that ac­tu­ally re­quire a re­ply.

The ma­jor­ity are mean­ing­less, bland but le­git­i­mate busi­ness emails dis­patched in bulk to bored end-users – a fact that ex­plains how swip­ing your smart­phone to delete emails has be­come as rou­tine and un­wel­come a chore as wash­ing dishes or mop­ping the bath­room floor.

Many peo­ple sim­ply feel over­whelmed, in­clud­ing a col­league who said re­cently he had over 100,000 un­read mes­sages in his in­box. How could any­one fea­si­bly process that many mes­sages – and would it be a valu­able use of their time? The an­swer is an un­equiv­o­cal no.

Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, Tom­lin­son, who once re­marked that he had in­vented email be­cause it seemed like a “neat idea”, seemed to have a hazy rec­ol­lec­tion of the ori­gins of his own cre­ation. In a 2008 in­ter­view, he couldn’t quite re­call what the first email – the re­sult of a mil­i­tary re­search pro­ject by his em­ployer Bolt, Ber­anek and New­man – ac­tu­ally said. It was, he spec­u­lated, per­haps “QWERTY” or an­other set of char­ac­ters, which were con­veyed a dis­tance of one me­tre be­tween two com­put­ers in a Bos­ton lab­o­ra­tory.

It’s a feel­ing many mod­ern of­fice work­ers would iden­tify with, amid the daily del­uge. Re­search from McKin­sey shows email now ab­sorbs an av­er­age of 28pc of the av­er­age work­ing week for high-skilled knowl­edge in­dus­try work­ers.

Over 100,000 em­ploy­ees at IBM now use Slack – one of a new breed of col­lab­o­ra­tive work­place apps, which are in­creas­ingly spread­ing vi­rally from com­pany to com­pany. Slack now has about 8m daily users, up from about 1m in mid 2015. It re­mains a tiny fig­ure com­pared to the 3.8bn peo­ple glob­ally who use email – but the fig­ure is grow­ing fast while gi­ants such as Mi­crosoft and oth­ers have launched sim­i­lar prod­ucts.

And cru­cially, whole coun­tries are start­ing to turn their backs on email. In China, for ex­am­ple, apps such as WeChat are ef­fec­tively re­plac­ing email with many peo­ple not both­er­ing to open ac­counts.

A sim­i­lar trend is un­der way in the US and Europe among young­sters who view an email ad­dress as only nec­es­sary be­cause it is some­thing you need to ac­cess other ser­vices such as in­stant mes­sag­ing or chat apps.

To be sure, email isn’t go­ing to dis­ap­pear overnight. It re­mains at the core of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­valu­able to many com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als, es­pe­cially for shar­ing files and doc­u­ments.

As for Tom­lin­son – who died of a heart at­tack at his home in Lin­coln, Mas­sachusetts in 2016 – he won’t have the op­por­tu­nity to see how the story of email ends.

His cre­ation has out­lasted him and will cel­e­brate its 50th birth­day in 2021. Will it reach its 60th? I’d say it is doubt­ful.

‘Many peo­ple sim­ply feel swamped, in­clud­ing a col­league who had 100,000 un­read mes­sages in his in­box’

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in ‘You’ve Got Mail’; re­cently, the phrase has be­come a threat rather than a de­light

ROBIN PAG­NA­MENTA

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